10 May 1948 - 14 September 1998

Bad Luck

This is an email I sent to an old friend, Dov Rosenfeld, who had asked us whether we could get to his and Cathy's wedding at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club in September, 1994:

From bobm Sat Jun 4 10:30:21 1994
Subject: Bad luck.
To: Dov_Rosenfeld.QM#u#SERVER@mailgate.efi.com (Dov Rosenfeld)
Date: Sat, 4 Jun 1994 10:30:21 +1000 (EST)
In-Reply-To: <9406031912.AA07383@efi.com> from "Dov Rosenfeld" at Jun 3, 94 12:13:41 pm

Dear Dov,

Two weeks after Easter Hazel was diagnosed with breast cancer. This happened because Zoë had elbowed H in the breast and H hurt, noticed a lump, and had a checkup. A week later she suffered a mastectomy. She's had two weeks of chemotherapy and in half way through two weeks fallow. This pattern of two weeks on, two weeks off, continues for six months. Her surgeon was Bill Patrick at Rachel Forster/RPA, her oncologist is Michael Friedlander at PoW. Then radiotherapy, then perhaps hormone therapy. She'd had a mammogram 18 mos ago at Stanford, with no sign of malignancy, but the tumour wasn't early: 5 lymph nodes malignant means a Stage IIIa cancer. Stop press: H's just told me she's losing hair, so the chemo's working. I read the now-extensive info on the net and realise that intelligent alternatives to today's "slash-and-burn" treatment are coming, but not yet.

She's in good spirits, buying new clothes, starting painting lessons, hoping to start singing lessons, not working, but it's a waiting game now. Son would burst into tears for no apparent reason in response I suppose to the emotional tension, but not any more.

H had planned to go to her niece's wedding in England a day or two after yours -- for a while there we had thought she could get to both the English one and the Berkeley one of yours -- but things as you can understand are very much up in the air now. I'd love to come, but I'll be teaching in Term 3 -- two subjects; I've just had my term off. (And had a promising Aspro interview last Thurs, but not counting any chickens ...).

Hope things are going well with the two of you.

More anon.


Hazel's breast cancer was first diagnosed in April, 1994, a Friday, the day before son's fifth birthday party. Some years before I met her, Hazel had been diagnosed with a benign cyst, which may have given her some false sense of safety. At any rate, she found a lump in her right breast but waited for a week or two (to see whether there was any change in the lump during her menstrual cycle). At home after Easter (I was in Melbourne with the kids), she went to her GP, who immediately ordered a biopsy.

I had been urging her to go to her doctor about the lump. but I didn't know that she'd been and was awaiting the test results. Until she rang me up at work with the chilling news: malignant.

She was to have a mastectomy next week, but in the meantime we went ahead with the party, including Bubbles, the clown, in our backyard, here in Balmain. I was numb -- I don't know what Hazel felt.

On Sunday, we went to the airport to see a friend who was off to Prague for a year. I don't think she realised anything was wrong, as we chatted and tried to put ourselves in her shoes as she tried to think if there was anything she'd forgotten to do before leaving. We stored a couple of boxes of her things in the attic.

It wasn't until Sunday evening that we started to face the full impact of the diagnosis of breast cancer. Hazel and I sat on the sofa as she called her mother and her sisters in England, the first people apart from the two of us to hear the news. We cried and held each other.

We were fortunate to have Kersten, an Austrian au pair, with us. This meant that there was another adult in the house to look after the kids if I was visiting Hazel in the Rachel Forster Hospital. We met her surgeon before the operation. I remember his rooms, near Sydney University, but not much about him.

The night before the operation, Hazel and I hugged each other in bed. To me there was no sign of the potential death that lurked in the rogue DNA of the breast.

The next day we all five of us went to the hospital. It was a sunny April day. The operation was in the evening.

There were no telephones in the ward, so I went out to rent a mobile phone. We didn't give out the number, but used it to allow Hazel to call her family during her recuperation.

I came back at the time I'd heard Hazel was to be back in the ward to confront an empty bed. Oh, I thought, a complication. My heart fell. But it was just that the operating theatre had not become free on time, and so everything was delayed. Hazel was wheeled in and came around with me holding her hand.

The operation was a success, but from the surgeon I hear enough to realise that Hazel's cancer would be classified as a Grade IIIA, based on the size of the tumour extracted and the fact that several lymph nodes were also malignant: the cancer had clearly started to spread. The grading scheme comes from the American Cancer Society, on the Internet.

I looked up the five-year survival figures, but I can't exactly rember the number, except that it was less than 50%. At that point I realised that Hazel was not a statistic, that it was not the summary measure that I wanted but the range. And we both heard of women who'd had their mastectomies years before, with no signs of recurrence.

Hazel had been recommended an oncologist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, but came back from her first meeting with him quite unhappy: he wouldn't tell her the treatment regime has was recommending, and anyway he was about to go off for two weeks and things would have to wait his return.

I hadn't been with her: a mistake I didn't make when we went to interview Dr Michael Friedlander at the Prince of Wales Hospital. He had treated the friend of a friend, and was highly recommended. We explained that we hadn't been impressed by the attitude of the earlier man and were looking for someone else.

Michael Friedlander was very open, and not at all put out by the two earnest people interviewing him. Hazel started treatment under him. He explained that her post-op treatment would comprise three things, all to the same end: to mop up any cancer cells that had escaped the surgeon's knife.

First, radiotherapy of the chest wall to reduce the risk of localised recurrence there. Second, a series of chemotherapy to try to kill any subclinical cells elsewhere in Hazel's body. Third, a course of the artificial hormone, tamoxifen, which had been found to reduce the rik of recurrence in women with tumours which were estrogen-receptor positive, as Hazel's was.

Hazel had taken sick leave as soon as the cancer had been diagnosed, and only returned to work about a year later. During that twelve months she suffered with the radiotherapy and the chemotherapy, but started to take up some things she'd always wanted to do.

She had bought a piano in Canberra and started learning the piano in her thirties, but had not continued her lessons when she moved to Sydney in 1984. Now she contacted Bridie, a jazz piano teacher in Glebe, and started lessons. As I recall, they weren't a great success, but Bridie had good contacts, and we went to the Basement at the Quay several times to hear such visiting jazz greats as Junior Johnson and others.

A more significant beginning occurred when Hazel contacted artist Graeme Inson, to ask whether she could start lessons with him at his Glebe studio. He asked her to come for in for a day, and after seeing what Hazel did with the oil paint and three hours, he asked her to come back. Hazel continued painting with Graeme Inson until November, 1997, when she could no longer continue because of the pain in her legs and back.

Graeme Inson started Hazel off in monochrome, for several months. Only when he thought she'd mastered his zone system in black and white, with highlights, shadows, perspective, and solid shapes, would he allow her to move to colour, not always a happy transition. But in 1995, when Hazel did start in colour, her paintings were as impressive as her first monochomes had been.

In October, 1994, Hazel's sister, Pat, came to visit for a few weeks and the two sisters visited the car auctions to buy the red stationwagon. We all visited Jervis Bay in the vehicle, and its newness impressed a garage attendant.

There is quite a long video taken in December, 1994, which shows scenes of Balmain and Barrington Guest House, as well as interviews with the kids and glimpses of Hazel. Zoë's fourth birthday party appears, and the shot at the top of this page is grabbed from this video, as Zoë prepared to unwrap her presents in the kitchen. The tape is memorable for two longer sequences of Hazel at Barrington: one, with the kids in the cabin, and two, Hazel and Ruth Pojer playing tennis when Zoë and Rachel Kalman run onto the court with a dispute, which Hazel resolves. There are also scenes of Hazel leading Zoë riding Cuddles the Pony through the rainforest.

In the meantime, please feel free to email me, Robert.

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Last Updated 5 March 1999